Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Limit of Dreams

Bernita recently said (on Jaye's Blahg):

Underneath it all, hiding under other fears - of rejection, of promotion - is the devastating fear that one might have to accept that one might just not be good enough.

I found this a very potent statement. I always love it when someone can cut right to the heart of a discussion like that. Nicely done, Bernita.

Finding out, for a fact, that you aren't good enough is devastating. I got a spoonful of that realisation in grad school. I discovered that I could do it - I could keep up with everyone else - but only barely, and only by working much harder than they did. Eventually, I had to admit to myself I simply wasn't intelligent enough to be a research scientist.

Ouch. "Not intelligent enough" is nasty. That's biological. You can't do anything to fix it.

It wouldn't bother me a sliver to find out I'm not physically capable of being an Olympic speed skater, but I've always been proud of my mind. To hit the biological limit of my intelligence, and to see that what I had dreamed of was beyond me, was horrible.

So what happens if I find out I'm not good enough at writing to realise my dreams?

The short answer is it will be devastating again and then I'll get over it again. Maybe I'll try my hand at painting instead. Yes, I dream of success, but I enjoy writing regardless, and the point of anything I do is to build an amazing life that I'm proud of. I don't have to receive the validation of strangers to be proud of my talents and what I can do with them.

There's good reason to tell kids they can do anything they set their mind to. It isn't true, but it's far better that they try and hit the wall than to never try.

And the thick skin you develop by repeatedly hitting walls? Hey, that just prepares you for being a writer!

Sunday, July 22, 2007


This was a great weekend. Not only did I polish off all of Harry Potter 7, but I also got a lot of writing done. Yes! Writing! On the day of the Potterapocalyse, no less!

There are benefits to having your spouse roll his eyes and leave you in a room by yourself for the whole weekend. I only needed fifteen hours to read the book; the rest of the time has been quite productive.

Which leads to the idea of multi-tasking.

I used to write Harry Potter fanfiction (*blush*), and it was a lot of fun. However, after I started my own novel, I had to stop writing fanfiction because I couldn't obsess properly about my own characters while I was also obsessing about someone else's. In my head, there appears to only be room for one universe at a time.

It astonishes me when someone says they are working on several stories simultaneously. I mean - how do you do that? I suppose it's easier if all the characters sprang from your own noggin, but still: one brain, one universe. Remove old cartridge before inserting new cartridge.

I think I'd find it very difficult to switch gears like that. Could those who do this, or have done it, tell me how it works for you? I'm really interested in how you manage it!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

How to Know If You're a Ginormous Geek:


a) the people sitting in front of you on the bus are talking (with enthusiasm) about gambling, and

b) the people sitting behind you on the bus are talking (with enthusiasm) about doing drugs, and

c) you are thinking (with enthusiasm) about how soon you're going to get your hands on the new Harry Potter book,

you just might be a ginormous geek.

(With apologies to Jeff Foxworthy.)

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Leet Homework Skillz and the Irony of Incorrect Foresight

A college instructor once mentioned to me that everything she learned in university she has used - even things she was sure would be irrelevant to her in the "real" world.

Life Lesson no. Seven-Bazillion-and-Two: You never can predict when a skill will come in handy.

While in university, I developed (like a disease, rather than intentionally) a mindset for doing homework.

My body position seemed to be important to getting in the right head-space: I couldn't work sitting on my bed; I had to be sitting at a desk or table. Once I got into the rhythm of problem-solving, however, I could forget myself and just sit there doing homework for ages. It was oddly pleasant and - when things were going well - enjoyable. (You know you're a geek when you enjoy doing your physics homework.)

I've found myself falling into this same rhythm when I brainstorm, plot or outline something for my novel (i.e. engage in "scheming"). I can "scheme" standing up, waiting for the bus, with my small notebook propped in my hand, but I scheme best when sitting at a desk or table. I can sit there for arbitrary periods of time working things out.

Part of my dedication to the idea of paying attention to your critique partners, even when you're sure they're off the mark, is that you might learn something new from them. You might see your work in a different way, or comprehend a different way to approach writing. Acquiring those new understandings is never wasted time - you'll use those skills someday, for something.

Last weekend, I said I knew where I wanted to go with the scene I was about to work on. And I did. That didn't help me actually get anywhere with it, however.

I spent this past week tapping my little hammer o' intellect on that big rough chunk o' idea and did not see a sculpted scene emerging. It was frustrating.

Today, I sat down at the table and finally got into problem-solving mode. After about four hours, I emerged with most of the scene planned out and a good chunk of the scene that comes after it ready to go also. I still have to figure out how the problem scene will begin, but I've made solid progress and am feeling smugly pleased with myself again. (When it comes to writing, I tend to oscillate between whiny melancholy and insufferable smugness. Pity my poor husband.)

Yo: leet homework skillz to the rescue, y'all!

What skills have you learned that you never would have expected to use, but did? When has something you dismissed surprised you by being relevant or useful at a later date?

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Walkies? | Writing | HarryPotterHarryPotterEeeeEEeee!!

Plaques of cloud blaze against the silvered haze of the summer sky. The island is a blue ghost lurking in the humidity on the ocean. Close by, I can see the water glitter, but out near the point, the reflections smudge together so the whole sea looks white. Waves and the wakes of boats lay dashes of shadow into that brightness that remind me of diffraction patterns. A handful of sailboats scatter the bay, each tilting its own direction. The moss growing on a nearby rooftop has thrust up a thicket of yellow flowers and a grey puffball of a seagull chick is running through it. In the sun, the chick's mother shines white.

Yes, I'm having trouble blogging instead of staring out my window. Holy Molybdenum, what a fabulous day. I shall have to drag my husband off the couch to go walkies soon.

This past week has been both fruitful and frustrating in terms of writing. I had to work longer hours than usual so my Astronomy students could come in to take sunspot data, thus I had fewer blocks of time at home to write. However, I also had more opportunity to plot and outline scenes (my husband refers to this process as "scheming".) The result was I had plenty to write but couldn't write it until this weekend.

Thanks to the "scheming", I've half-finished a very long and intricate scene I had been dreading working out the logic of. I also know what I'll do for the rest of it, although more plotting will be required. Last night, I opened a later chapter to check a fact, realised that scene wasn't logically consistent with the scene I had been writing, fixed it, then went back to what I'd been working on. I'm pretty happy with everything I've produced, also.

When El Husbando lumbers blissfully out of bed at 10AM on the weekends, he must think I'm nuts to be so chipper and happy. After all, I've already been up three hours and he knows I'm as much a night owl as he is. I can't help it; when your writing is going well, you just feel so pleased with yourself and your life.

M'aide, M'aide; I'm hearing gentle snores wafting out of the couch. Going for that walk may prove more difficult than I'd originally envisioned.

In short, I've been quite productive the past few days. This is in spite of having new library books to dive into and the Harry Potter fanatic in me having suddenly come awake and started gibbering that we! must! re-read! all the old books before HP Armageddon hits on the 21st.

Dagnabbit; how many pages is that, anyway? Everything after book three was a house brick.

'Nuff about me; how is everyone else's writing going? Are you lucky enough to have sunny weather interfering with your concentration these days? :-)

Monday, July 02, 2007

Rambling through my long weekend

Yesterday was Canada Day, and in celebration (of the fact that I don't have to go to work today; whoo-hoo!), Zombie Monday is cancelled. I actually feel coherent. (And I have as much tea as I care to drink, which makes me happy.)

This blog post will start out about something dear to both Canadians and writers: being picky-assed about spelling. Where it shall end up, I do not know.

Canadians don't spell the way Americans do. We feel irrationally smug and superior about this, too - irrationally because we aren't spelling the way the British do, so it's not like we're correct and Americans aren't. Sure, we keep the extra "u" in colour, but we don't put the extra "o" in "foetus" and we willfully and flagrantly write "jail" instead of "gaol".

There is more than one correct way to spell and not a lot of merit to choosing one set of spellings over another. If you want to be unbiased about it, the British invented the language, therefore their conventions are correct.

But where did their conventions come from? A lot of standard English spellings are phonetic renditions of the way the language was spoken seven hundred years ago in England. The "k", "g" and "h" in "knight" really were pronounced (something like "k-nig-hh-t".) Thus, the standard spellings of today don't reflect the way the British speak anymore, so why hold them sacred? Only because it's convenient to have standardized spelling.

(It's a little like the fact that the Sun signs of western Astrology, i.e. Pisces, Virgo, etc., are based on the constellations the Sun used to pass through. Thanks to the precession of the Earth's axis, the Sun now passes through thirteen constellations. Is your birthday between November 30th and December 17th inclusive? Surprise! Your Sun sign is actually Ophiuchus.)

Also, spelling was standardized after the invention of typesetting, and the typesetters were originally paid by the letter. It benefited them to pad out words. I don't see much merit in being snobbish about a 700-years-dead guy's method of lining his pocket.

So what's my point? Hmm; what is my point? I know I had one. I saw it here a second ago... Oh, yes.

Feeling superior to someone based on their language skills could blind you the merits of their work. I think it was the frighteningly intelligent Feemus who noted that sneering at someone for writing an approximation of street slang is basically you congratulating yourself for speaking your own dialect. There is no superiority there; you're just being smug.

I got caught out by this once. I had a very nice fellow leave a critique for me on Critique Circle.


Holy Jude Law, revered Saint of Sexy, this guy's English skills were atrocious. He didn't capitalise, he swapped or missed letters randomly, his punctuation was non-existent. I was inclined to ignore the critique based on that; how could someone who can't write English properly give a useful critique? Surely you need some level of competence yourself before you're capable of dissecting someone else's work thoughtfully?

I put that aside, because I believe in listening to critiquers. It's fine to decide someone is flakier than a box of bran, but you listen to what they're saying before you make that call. Arrogance is bad for a writing career; professionals should always be open to the idea that they could stand to improve.

I gave his comments serious thought and found they were good ones. I wrote the fellow an email thanking him and noting which points I had found most useful. He wrote back to thank me in return and asked if I'd be willing to critique his story.

The language skills displayed in his email were every bit as horrific as those in his critique. I cringed, but I agreed to have a look at his work.

The story was very good. The mechanics were also fine; he had a tendency to swap letters still, but everything else was perfect.

It turns out the fellow is dyslexic. He's bright and talented, but he's got a brain-wiring issue that makes words squirm for him. He's dedicated to his writing, and puts effort into making it mechanically correct, but he doesn't do the same for casual correspondences because that's too much effort.

I really feel a turd for having judged him based on an email. My brother is also slightly dyslexic, so I should know better. My [brother/childhood tormentor/favourite person to snitch books from] is also extremely intelligent and capable, but yeah; his emails are also an orca-sized case of ouch every single time. I should have known better.

Wow; this is a long post. Oh, well. It's a long weekend. :-)

So is it fair to judge someone on their language skills? It depends on which arena you're standing in, and which lions are licking their chops as they pad toward you. Writers tend to whinge when literary agents and editors rail about some little thing they hate. To the writers, it seems arbitrary (like the rules of spelling) and unfair.

There is an element of truth to that, but the fact is if you want to get published, you're supposed to be better than just about everyone on the planet at writing. You need to be able to function at that level. Yes, it's hard, but the only reason it feels unfair is because, to varying degrees, we interact with our fellow writers by being reasonable. We praise our critique partners for their strengths as well as bruising them for their weaknesses. We make allowances for different dialects and styles of writing. We exercise tact. We remember that everyone starts out sucky, but that it's a curable affliction.

The professionals in the publishing industry don't have to do that. As soon as you leave the small and human environment of your critique group, the world is suddenly full of knives and icy wind. The change is a shock, but it's not unfair. You're trying to be one of the best, remember? No whining when someone says you aren't there yet; say thank you for the heads-up and keep working at it.

And speaking of working (and tying back to the issue of smugness) did I mention I don't have to go to work today?

Neener, neener! *cackles evilly*

Pageloads since 01/01/2009: